Children say UMaine ‘Space Camp’ is a stellar success

Posted July 01, 2011, at 6:16 p.m.
Last modified July 01, 2011, at 6:48 p.m.

ORONO, Maine — While most vacationing grade school students were concentrating on their skateboard skills, playing video games at home, or just enjoying sleeping late on Friday, some were learning about everything from oobleck fluid to liquid nitrogen ice cream.

The University of Maine Space and Energy Camp completed its first weeklong session Friday, and judging by the reaction of the 18 children, ages 5 to 13, who took part, it was a stellar success.

“This has been awesome,” said 8-year-old Andrew Marston of Bangor. “My mom suggested this for me because I’m really interested in science — things like molecules and cells.”

Brenna Jones, 9, of Old Town had a vested interest in the camp since her father, Kevin Roberge, is both a UMaine graduate student going for his doctorate in physics and also the director of what has been nicknamed “Space Camp.”

“I think it’s pretty cool. It’s kind of better than any of the other camps I’ve been to because they do a lot of different things and they make it more fun to watch and do,” said Jones.

Rocket launches powered by water bottles, egg drops in which campers try to design the best way to protect an egg from breaking during a fall, pizza box solar ovens, frozen treats such as ice cream from rock salt and ice or liquid nitrogen, bubbles, and a visit to the Maynard F. Jordan Planetarium and Observatory were some of the highlights of an event- and experiment-packed week.

“We’ve used rockets that use water to fly and another one used oobleck, but it was a failure because it blew up,” said Marston, who was proudly sporting a NASA T-shirt he got at the Kennedy Space Center in Florida earlier this year.

David Batuski, UMaine’s physics and astronomy department chairman, has had the idea for a space and physics camp for years and was smiling broadly after seeing his idea turned into reality.

“It became possible because of Kevin. He took it and ran with it,” Batuski said of Roberge. “It’s gone very, very well. For me, seeing the excitement of these kids is great. There’s always noise and excitement and they’re really liking the program.”

The goal was to be different. Mission accomplished.

“I had this in the back of my mind, and once I checked out the viability of it, we decided to hold one for the first time here,” said Roberge. “There are really no camps like this around here and it’s unique because it’s probably the only one featuring research scientists and graduate students.

“You can tell them things and show them a book, but it’s not the same as touching something or watching it happen.”

The most popular offering of the week seemed to be an experiment in which all the young campers used a type of catapult contraption to hurl water balloons at the seven counselors on the camp staff.

“I thought if we shot the balloons from the middle, we’d [give] a more clear shot, but I didn’t really test it. It was a hypothesis,” said Marston.

Variety was the spice of life at the space camp.

“When we were outside today, we built structures and dipped them in soap solution to see what kind of surfaces erupted, and we also did a water balloon version of the ‘Angry Birds’ game where students tried to figure out the right range to hit the counselors,” said Roberge.

While fun was the main emphasis along with learning, it was serious business for some camp attendees such as Marston, who already has an idea of what he’d like to be someday.

“Probably a scientist. When I grow up, I want to leave the farm and go to the city,” he said. “One of my dreams is to see an atom with a microscope. … One glimpse at it and my dream comes true.”

Batuski expressed admiration for the students.

“You can’t tell from the ages, because one 6-year-old is way ahead of another 13-year-old or even some 20-year-olds,” he said. “I had one kid who’s going into sixth grade tell me he really liked the oobleck rocket experiment because it’s a non-Newtonian fluid. It’s astounding in a great way.”

For the record, oobleck got its name from the Dr. Seuss book “Bartholomew and the Oobleck” and it is a non-Newtonian fluid: It acts like a liquid when being poured, but like a solid when a force is acting on it. You can grab it in solid form, but it then will ooze out of your hands.

The next two space and physics camp sessions will be held July 11-15 and July 25-29 at Bennett Hall on the UMaine campus. Parents wanting information can get registration forms at Bennett Hall or visit www.physics.umaine.edu/SummerCamp/.

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